I had barely clicked my riding shoes into my stationary bike pedals when the spinning instructor — one part Richard Simmons, one part Delilah — started waxing poetic about all the internal struggles each rider surely was facing. I had little interest in whatever pop psychology he was serving up. Yet, the more I pedaled like a frantic lab rat, the more he peddled self-help wisdom seemingly borrowed from HomeGoods wall art.
I had not hoarded my ClassPass credits for this, to be told to look in the mirror and “fall in love” with myself in a room full of sweaty strangers. I was here for a solid calorie burn and maybe some triceps toning — not therapy.
But annoyance aside, the experience made me wonder: What does motivate people to schedule and push themselves in a workout? It’s an especially apt question at this caloric time of year. Lots of folks turn to exercise after piling on the pumpkin pie and downing too many peppermint mochas, but the desire to shave off seasonal pounds is seldom enough to sustain a successful workout routine.
I decided to turn to a few fitness experts for motivation guidance. Not one suggested that telling people to fall in love with themselves is effective. But, oddly enough, they also didn’t agree on what the answer is — and promoted starkly different approaches.
Bradley J. Cardinal, a sport and exercise psychology professor at Oregon State University, views fitness through the lens of positive psychology. The president of the National Academy of Kinesiology, who has been studying student motivation in exercise arenas since the early 1990s, thinks that instructors who instill their students with the beliefs that they can meet goals, build confidence, “bounce back from a setback” and expect good things in the future have the best chance at keeping their students motivated.
Sports psychologist Mark Aoyagi, on the other hand, thinks being hopeful and optimistic shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a great workout. The director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, who works with the Denver Broncos and has trained Olympic athletes, says he instructs clients to focus less on finding inspiration and more on their commitment to long-term goals.
“When one of my kids wakes up crying at 2 in the morning, I’m not motivated to go help them. But I’m committed to it,” Aoyagi says. “Commitments are values-based, and values are ongoing statements about who we want to be and how we see ourselves in the world. And they’re not reliant on a particular thought or a particular feeling.”
Robin Arzon, vice president of fitness programming for the indoor cycling company Peloton and author of “Shut Up and Run,” describes her instructional approach as “direct, with tough love.” She occasionally posts blunt messages to Instagram — “Replace ‘I don’t have time’ with ‘it’s not important,’ and see how that feels. No challenge. No change.” — and told me she has “a very low threshold” for excuses.
I had one vote each for positive psychology, commitment and tough love as instructional strategies. Each approach theoretically made sense, but did research back them up? Turns out, scholars have studied motivation in group fitness settings for decades. And, as with the experts I talked with, results have varied; no single instructional strategy has conclusively proved to be the best at motivating participants.
One running theme, however, is that students perform better (and are more likely to return) when they’ve formed a connection with an instructor. As Aoyagi told me by email: “The connection a fitness participant feels with the instructor would likely be a strong predictor of all positive outcomes, including motivation to continue the class and actual classes attended.”
Another thing to consider, I realized, is the role of peers. In one study, led in 2014 by Jingwen Zhang, an assistant communication professor at the University of California at Davis, researchers examined whether online support or competition would be more effective in motivating 790 students at the University of Pennsylvania to exercise. The students were organized into groups that were offered incentives to compete with their peers, raise a team score by expressing support for their peers or compete on a team level as well as express support for their peers.
Social comparison proved a “surprisingly effective” motivator, the researchers concluded in their summation, published in Preventive Medicine Reports in 2016. Those offered incentives to compete, whether on an individual or team level, exercised more frequently than those giving and receiving support from their peers. “So as long as you had this social-comparison mind in your head,” Zhang told me, “you could achieve better exercise outcomes.”
Does that mean I should go sprinting to the nearest Orangetheory or CycleBar, which have television monitors that display how each individual or group is doing? Not necessarily. Zhang warns that comparing yourself with someone who performs better or worse than you in class may be detrimental. Instead, she says, find a peer in your class who has shared goals and baselines, and look to that person as your competitor, perhaps even tracking your workouts together — essentially, a dedicated exercise frenemy.
The only aspect my research has made clear is that there’s no one way to help people get the most out of their workout. And I’ve realized that different occasions might call for different approaches. If I’m determined to finally enter that marathon (by which I mean “5K”), I might reach out to the trainer who reminds me that my commitment to the finish line, not my lack of enthusiasm about 5 a.m. runs, is what matters. If I need to blow off steam after a fractious work meeting, I might attend a boot camp with my girlfriends for a bit of friendly competition. And if I’m feeling defeated, perhaps I could benefit from letting go of cynicism and letting in some mushy spin-class psychobabble. As long as I focus on finding instructors with whom I connect and environments in which I feel both welcome and challenged, it seems, I’ll be well on my way.